War and Peace With Animal Neighbors

living in the countryside is relaxing, except when it comes to critters’ destructive tendencies

Justin Patchin, photos by Justin Patchin

I live on a dead-end township road adjacent to the Eau Claire River. As such, animal sightings are to be expected, and are, for the most part at least, welcomed. But lately, it feels as if the animals are conspiring and coordinating their efforts to push us out.

In the nearly seven years my family and I have resided here, we’ve seen a menagerie of wildlife. The rare visitors are most treasured: the occasional otter swimming in the river; the mink silently sneaking along the rocky shoreline; or the dark brown fisher hunting red squirrels below white pines.

I try to satisfy the birds, but the rodents steal the food. A posse of masked raccoons absconded with one of the feeders. I’ve got surveillance footage of the heist, but despite widespread circulation, the perpetrators remain at large.

Last summer I arrived home late to see a large black bear lumber across the road in front of my neighbor’s yard. I have a trail camera photograph of a bobcat from right behind our backyard picket fence. These encounters are a part of why we moved here: to put some distance between us and the rat race of city life and instead spend time with, well, actual rats.

But what I didn’t count on was the destructive tendencies of fur and feather.

The moles are my main enemy. They tunnel under the turf, tearing apart my precious though imperfectly manicured lawn. I’ve tried all measures with little success. I purchased mole poison but refused to use it when I read the label, which detailed the list of “environmental hazards,” “physical-chemical hazards,” and general “hazards to humans and domestic animals.” After years of chasing them, I finally did catch one in an underground steel trap specifically designed for the task. You would’ve thought I found a lily blooming in the backyard with the excitement I felt. It was a short-lived celebration, though, as I realized he was just the dumbest of the labour (yes, a group of moles is really called a “labour”) that still occupies the topsoil unmolested.

Then there are the deer. More than once we have opened our front door to see them eating the perennials not 5 feet away. Each fall they devour the jack-o’-lanterns perched atop the steps. They terrorize the garden in the backyard, too. The same backyard that is “protected” by a 4-foot-high fence and a German shorthaired pointer. And the “Deer Off” repellent procured to “trigger their flight response” has seemingly attracted more than repelled them.

Squirrels and chipmunks dig holes around the yard, burying treat caches for later uprooting. The “Animal Stopper” spray comes in a bright red bottle that guarantees “100% satisfaction” and promises that it was “safe, organic, and pleasant to use.” I can report that it is not pleasant to smell. And its effectiveness is arguable.

I try to satisfy the birds, but the rodents steal the food. A posse of masked raccoons absconded with one of the feeders. I’ve got surveillance footage of the heist, but despite widespread circulation, the perpetrators remain at large. We never did find the feeder.

Downy woodpeckers have perforated large portions of the cedar house siding, presumably looking for a meal. Bigger holes are cut for the purpose of family rearing. Other species of birds then move into the abandoned homes. I patch the holes, but new ones emerge. In desperation, I resort to buying a pellet gun. But it turns out I can’t hit the broad side of a barn with the thing. And while I am an avid hunter, I have trouble killing a bird (or any animal for that matter) just for the sake of killing it. Even if it is destroying my property.

The cottontails are the most prolific of pillagers. They go for anything that is green (except, it seems, the poison ivy and nettles). Winter is especially bad, where they go for whatever foliage remains above the snow.

Early last spring I noticed a tiny bunny in a patch of weeds under the decades-old pine trees in the front yard. Then I saw another. And a third. They couldn’t have been more than a few days old. They were fully furred, but barely bigger than my clinched fist. Prudence would have dictated that I dispatch, or at least relocate, the intruders while still at their most vulnerable. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. The cute little puffballs seemed like pets. I ran the sprinkler for the first time that evening and the little buggers hopped out from the weeds and frolicked in the artificial rain as if they were waiting for me to do it. It was a treat to watch and I thought to myself, “So what if they destroy a few of the strawberry plants?” When I returned from an out-of-town trip a few days later to check on them, all that remained were the puffs of fur. Something got to them. Unlike me, Mother Nature does not get mired in the morality of murder.

The other evening I was enjoying a particularly vibrant sunset from the dock when I began to mull over my ongoing war with the animals. I paused to reflect on how I had been failing and resolved to figure out a way to coexist. Just then I had this sensation that I was being watched. I turned around and there was a beaver, not 10 feet from me, gnawing on a basswood branch. He stopped chewing for a moment and looked up at me as if to say, “Thanks for the snack.”

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